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Lab Testing: WGBH Offers Opportunities for Indies

By Tamara Krinsky

From Katrina Browne's Traces of the Trade, which was made as part of the WGBH Filmmakers-in-Residence Program. Photo: Amishadai Sackitey

The traditional broadcast networks aren't the only ones who need to figure out how to adapt as online video and new technologies continue to change how people receive their news and entertainment. Public stations recognize that the media landscape is changing, and they too must actively take part or else lose out on the next generation of new voices. Boston-based WGBH, a leading producer of PBS prime-time programs and online content, has created the WGBH Lab as a response.

The Lab is currently comprised of four programs. The "Video Sandbox" allows users to download free video from the WGBH archive to use in mash-ups and non-commercial projects. The "Filmmakers-in-Residence" program offers a small stipend, office space and editorial support to those who are in the midst of a project. "Open Call 6:55 Shorts" funds short projects for potential series development and broadcast. The "WGBH Showcase" provides the opportunity to submit previously made independent work for broadcast, webcast or podcast via the Lab.

Denise Dilanni, the WGBH executive in charge of the Lab, says, "I had been here for 25 years, and I wanted to figure out a way to find out about what was going on out there that I didn't know about as an executive producer." She wanted to open the doors to independent makers, and hoped that doing so would provide a synergistic burst of energy for the in-house team at WGBH.

The Filmmakers-in-Residence program was the first Lab program, and the first filmmaker to take part was Katrina Browne. Her film Traces of the Trade tells the story of her New England ancestors who made up the largest slave-trading family in early America, and of the journey undertaken by Browne and her relatives as they re-traced their forebears' slave trade route. The filmmaker happened upon the Lab in its nascent stage, and she willingly became its first guinea pig.

Though the residency was originally only supposed to last for nine months, Browne ended up spending two years at WGBH editing her film. "I remember when we first got there it was like entering this new shiny universe of institutional support," she recalls. "As indie filmmakers we have a high tolerance for low budgets. To be able to be there and have things that people who work at stations or long standing production houses take for granted was a real gift."

In addition to the tangible benefits provided such as office space, an editorial advisor and an onsite screening room, Browne says that just getting the stamp of approval from such a flagship station helped with the film's fundraising process. Her team was also able to grill the Lab advisors about the often-confusing maze of the public television system. Another bonus: Browne could attend the monthly meetings for WGBH staffers, where she gleaned useful tidbits about outreach and national programming trends.

Now that the program has been around for several years, it is a bit more structured. During the nine-month residency, filmmakers receive an unrestricted honorarium of approximately $5,000, office space, a computer, a phone, editing facilities and screening facilities. There is some camera equipment available as well. "If you've never made a film and have no money, this program isn't for you," says Dilanni. "If you've shot a film and are at the stage where you need an office, editorial consulting and a professional community, this is perfect for you."

The next lab program to launch was "Open Call 6:55 Shorts," which began four years ago. According to Dilanni, at the very worst, the funded shorts would be failed experiments; at best, they would provide provocative content that could potentially take programming in new and interesting directions. The only creative parameters were that pieces needed to have substance and credibility, couldn't be profane, and must be appropriate for a prime time audience. 

"6:55 Shorts" recently funded its third round of projects, and the Lab is adding a new element to the process: the "virtual rough cut." Three experienced filmmakers of different backgrounds, ages and career levels have been invited to take part in a blog where they will review rough cuts of the selected projects with their creators. Once the dialogue has gone on for awhile, the Lab will open the blog up to others to "eavesdrop" on the conversation, and eventually join in. The participating filmmakers are Sam Pollard, a frequent collaborator with Spike Lee; Ross Kauffman (Born Into Brothels) and Marshall Curry (Street Fight).

The newest addition to the Lab is the "Sandbox" program, which was designed to ride the wave of user-generated content on the Web by providing footage for experimentation among media-makers. Launched in October, the idea was inspired in part by the BBC's efforts to make its archives more accessible to the public. Says Dilanni, "The documentarian who is making his or her own half a million dollar film for Discovery is probably less likely to use the Sandbox than an independent who is making his or her own work as a means of creative expression."

Dilanni and her team are still figuring out some of the details of the program, such as exactly when "non-commercial" use of footage crosses over into "licensing," and they encourage Sandbox users to ask questions so that they can continue to develop it. They are curious to know how people are using the footage, and expect indie filmmakers, vloggers and film students to be the primary users.  

More information about the WGBH Lab, including the next application periods for the Filmmakers-in-Residence and 6:55 Shorts programs, can be found at


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.