April 30, 2005

A Doc Community Thrives Among Dot-Com Survivors: The D-Word, Doculink and MediaRights.org

Home page for the MediaRights.org website. Courtesy of MediaRights.com

Remember back in the late 1990s, when the dot-com world was taking off? There was talk of the Internet replacing "brick and mortar" businesses. The days of face-to-face interaction were numbered. This was also the time when it looked like the Internet was going to become a haven for e-commerce and nothing else.

While online vitamin shops and hoola-hoop specialty stores came and went, there were visionary documentarians looking to the Internet as a way to serve the documentary community. The fruits of their labors have been great: The D-Word recently celebrated its fifth birthday, which MediaRights.org will also mark this year, and Doculink just turned three. All have proven to be vital resources for documentary makers.

The D-Word

The D-Word is an online discussion forum for documentary filmmakers. Founder Doug Block likens it to the House of Docs (now merged with the Filmmaker Lodge) at the Sundance Film Festival. "It's a place to exchange information and a place to socialize and hang out," he says.

It was the very idea of a place for colleagues to talk to each other that inspired Block to launch the D-Word. Block, who produced Jupiter's Wife (1993) and has made several of his own films, says he started the online forum in 1999 on a lark.

The D-Word is comprised of two parts: the D-Word Community and the D-Word Forum. The D-Word Community is open to documentary filmmakers and professionals, while the D-Word Forum is open to anyone. In order to join the D-Word Community, one must fill out a short application. It doesn't cost anything, but it's a way to show that a person is serious about documentary.

The D-Word Community is a dynamic online forum made up of various ongoing discussion boards. People ask questions, seek help with proposals, make arrangements to swap tapes through snail mail, screen works-in-progress and even work on collaborative projects--All in the spirit of generosity," explains Block.

Discussion forums can be about anything from "Developing Story and Structure" to "The Legal Corner." The Doc Bar and Grill is the place to chat with other members when the conversation isn't about a specific topic. The Parking Lot is the place to go to rant and rave about anything at all. At any one time there are nearly 40 discussions going on.

Block says that the first couple of years of this labor of love were a lot of work. In the second year, Ben Kempas, who is based in Germany, became a co-host of the D-Word. "Ben did a redesign when he started," says Block. "He's been really instrumental in easing the burden on me, and he knows much more about Web design." Kempas also developed the D-Word Database, which allows members of the D-Word Community to find fellow members throughout the world.

Year two of the D-Word also ushered in collaborative projects among members of the D-Word Community, including War and Peace and Essays on Documentary. It was after the second year that Block began the D-Word Forum.

Block says he neither publicized nor promoted D-Word, but five years later there are almost 1,300 members of the D-Word Community from over 65 countries. The size of the community is less important than the passion and energy of its members, Block says, explaining that he's interested in creating a worldwide community--"a way to build bridges between the US and Europe." Along those lines, the first "Face2Face" meeting was held in Iceland in 2004. There, 30 producers met, presented projects and discussed how to make co-productions happen.

In the future, Block intends to redesign the website in a way that will allow D-Word to have total control over its look. Block is also experimenting with online streaming to develop an online lab. "Right now, streaming capabilities are still limited," says Block. "The technology isn't quite there yet." The idea is to create an online screening room online where D-Word members can screen works-in-progress. Block says this would allow for more feedback and other "chain" projects among members of the community.

And funding? Block says there is no business plan in development, although he has explored the idea of looking for grants. He acknowledges that online grants are difficult to get, and funding might change the character of D-Word. Block is committed to continuing a community where members are part of the decision-making process and, above all, there is worldwide camaraderie with other D-Word members.

Doculink

When Robert Bahar and Antonia Kao were in film school at University of Southern California, they were part of a wonderful documentary community. Ironically, after film school, when they were further along in their careers, they had less access to this community, explains Bahar, co-founder and list moderator of Doculink.

"It started out of this hunger for community," says Kao, who co-founded Doculink with Bahar. "I remember the moment we came up with the name Doculink, and it felt right." Doculink was launched in February 2002.

Doculink began with an e-mail listserv and monthly meetings. The idea was to have a listserv for things like job leads and equipment rentals, while monthly meetings would be about getting together and building friendships with people working in documentary. At that time the list had 20 people and the monthly meetings took place in Los Angeles.

Three years later, the list has grown to over 900 people with subscribers as far away as Peru, and there are Doculink chapters in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with a fledgling chapter in New York and talk of additional chapters in the US and Canada.

The listserv is the heart of Doculink. Subscribers post messages and discuss anything that pertains to documentary filmmaking. It might be a director looking for a camera person or an editor, a problem capturing footage in Final Cut Pro or advice on shooting in a classroom. It could be information about screenings or funding sources or a heads-up about an interesting article on the state of documentary filmmaking.

The list is vibrant and ongoing. Bahar explains that people will write to the list and sometimes within minutes others will respond with useful referrals and thoughtful suggestions. The Doculink website also has a valuable Resources and Links page.

But Doculink is more that a website and listserv, explains Bahar.

The monthly meetings, which alternate between hosting a guest speaker and gathering casually over coffee, are a very important aspect of Doculink. "I always leave the meetings feeling really energized," he says. "You need that sense of community. I go there and hear what others are working on and brainstorm about other peoples' projects." Featured speakers in Los Angeles have included IDA President Richard Propper, attorney Michael Donaldson, director/writer Mark Harris, editor Kate Amend and composer Miriam Cutler.

The monthly meetings began in Los Angeles, and when Kao moved to the Bay Area she began a chapter there. Mercedes Coats, also a graduate of USC, got involved with establishing the Bay Area Doculink and since then has taken over as the regional coordinator of the chapter.

Coats explains that the Bay Area meetings are similar to those in Los Angeles. When new chapters begin, as one recently did in New York, the Bay Area serves as a model. "We put together guidelines for starting new chapters," Coats says. "It's starting to become a reality that we have both the list and the local chapters." She stresses that the website and listserv comprise the heart of Doculink, and the monthly meetings are a way to form real relationships with people from the online community. "Both are important, and we want to keep Doculink identified with the whole group and not faction off geographically," she says.

Doculink is an all-volunteer organization, but it may in the future become a more formal structure. There are plans on the horizon to revamp the website, including expanding the Links and Resources page and making it easier to search the archives for old posts. There is also talk of developing a separate listserv for a more discussion-oriented forum in which to debate ideas, talk about the artistic side of filmmaking and allow for longer posts.

Any plans for the future will encourage Doculinkers to continue a completely open and generous exchange of ideas and information among its members.

MediaRights.org

It is no small task to get a film out in the world and seen by the right audience. Nicole Betancourt, the executive director or MediaRights.org, explains that many times filmmakers say their film is for a general audience when really it's a perfect match for a grassroots organization. The challenge is for the filmmaker and the organization to find each other; this is where MediaRights.org comes in. "We're really all about distribution," says Betancourt. "A couple of films have made it big and there's a middle ground where some have achieved a degree of success, but the majority of social issue films are still grassroots."

MediaRights.org, which has been on the Web since 2000, is the place where film and activism intersect. Broadly speaking, MediaRights.org is a database of social issue films; it has over 6,000 listings. Filmmakers can list a film, and activists, community groups, nonprofit organizations and individuals interested in researching films on specific topics can turn to the database.

There are several related databases on MediaRights.org: filmmakers, films, distributors, activist/nonprofit organizations and media makers. Betancourt says the organization is now creating a database of nonprofits that have worked with filmmakers before, or are interested in working with them. "That way, when filmmakers contact these organizations they'll have an understanding or will be open to the idea, and they'll be interested in talking," she maintains. "This is a much more valuable database and a much more valuable way to approach a nonprofit."

MediaRights.org was born out of need. Back in 1999, founders Julie Pimsleur and Katy Chevigny seized on the power and potential of the Internet. Before the Web, the bulk of lists sent out by distributors were in the form of catalogues and in order to get anything into the computer, the information would have to be entered by hand.

Five years later, the numbers are a testament to the impact of the database. With a list of 6,000 films, as well as distributors and nonprofit organizations, MediaRights.org gets 100,000 unique visitors monthly; since becoming an official Google News Source in 2002, MediaRights.org's audience has grown over 600 percent.

For the filmmaker there's also the Outreach Toolkit, which includes a how-to, step-by-step strategy to plan an outreach campaign, as well as sample budgets, successful grant applications and a breakdown on the percentage of a budget to spend on outreach. The Outreach Toolkit for filmmakers is available online and as a book produced by the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers.

MediaRights.org is all about connecting films with audiences, and this is still a challenge. There are blockbuster films like Fahrenheit 911 and Super Size Me, but, says Betancourt, "The majority of social issue films are used and are successful and make an impact on a very grassroots level, and that success is very important."

MediaRights.org has several other programs, including the Media That Matters Film Festival, Youth Media Distribution Outreach to educators and librarians (a separate website at www.ymdi.org), and workshops and training of community organizations and educators how to use film as part of their curriculum

The beauty of these organizations--The D-Word.com, Doculink.org and Media Rights.org--is that you can turn to your computer to find out more about them, and you don't have to feel like that is shutting out person-to-person interaction. If anything, these websites will foster a deeper sense of community, both online and in the old fashioned brick-and-mortar world.

Laura Almo was a screener in the World Documentary category for the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. She has also taught Real Stories, Sundance Institute's Youth Documentary Workshop at Spy Hop Productions. Lka@alumni.stanford.org

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