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SXSW Panels: Unbranded Content, Storyworlds, Toolkits and Crowdfunding

By Patricia Aufderheide

At SXSW panels, you can get the headlines of business trends that overlap techie and filmmaker interests, if you can sift through the hype, the self-promotion, the glib reductionism and relentless branding.

This year, the standard "convergence" panels featured issues of overlapping interest, particularly around changing television business models. The big growth area of interest was the "digital domain," or interactive documentary strand, where for the second year, crowds demonstrated that SXSW has to relocate the strand from the tiny room it's given. New this year was a Participant Media owned-and-operated day on social-good audio-visual storytelling.

Many panels' topics overlapped, and advice did too. Here are takeaways:

—Branded content, or high-quality storytelling that shapes brand identity, has found a little sister in unbranded content. That's the same thing, but without an obvious link to the brand. There's enough interest in it by corporations and nonprofits alike that skilled journalists and filmmakers can count on considering employment in this area. And then they can grapple with all the expectable ethical issues, which are not new. Indeed, most documentary filmmakers have some experience with advertising or sponsored work. Corporate examples at SXSW included American Express' financial inclusion campaign with Participant Media's TAG; We Could Be King, DICK'S Sporting Goods' documentary with Tribeca Digital Studios in support of youth sports; AT&T's documentary series with Vice about cultural habits of a mobile generation; and Whole Foods' in-house-produced Dark Rye. Nonprofits are also realizing, says Hugh Evans of the Global Poverty Project, that "we all need to be media and tech companies too."

—You're not just telling stories anymore, you're making storyworlds, or environments people identify and bond with, participate in, share with their friends. Those storyworlds employ content not for consumption but communication. Social media are essential tools to build these storyworlds.

—In the construction of storyworlds, think episodic or series. That's what 70 percent of Netflix viewing is, and Netflix has five million more subscribers than HBO does.

—Crowdfunding is also crucial to building the storyworld, by building community. It's also important for fundraising, but don't count on it for the core budget.

—Interactive documentary, or transmedia, or whatever we call it, is still bleeding edge. It'll get a name, as The Goggles told us, once "a lot of people actually like what they see and say to themselves, ‘I want more of that.'" Story is the anchor of the experience, don't forget; don't overwhelm users with too many choices.

—Distribution continues in the same decentralized direction, with more intermediaries. Theatrical is still the classiest way to establish a film's marketplace identity, and still doesn't make any real money. The proliferation of venues means closely watching who gets what rights to do what with, and under what conditions. There's a lot more opportunity, but figuring out what's in the toolkit to leverage it is not easy.

—Use data to improve your strategies and performance. Use social media to test strategies and recalibrate when they don't work. Learn how data are being used to control your own choices; some called this "algorithmic literacy."

—Engagement is basic to any social-good project, and designers need to think not only in terms of awareness but action, and to measure not inputs but outputs. That said, the reality is that we don't have great metrics for measuring impact yet.

—Filmmakers have to care about net neutrality, surveillance and privacy because it affects their work directly. Net neutrality, or making sure ISPs don't get to pick and choose whose data moves most smoothly across their networks, can protect filmmakers from industry behemoths (Hello, Netflix and Comcast!) from limiting their distribution options, for example. Both corporate and governmental surveillance pose threats to filmmakers and their subjects. Free Press' Craig Aaron was both smart and funny on net neutrality, and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was smart and sobering on surveillance and privacy. Both gave attendees a to-do list.


Edward Snowden addressing the SXSW audience via Google. Photo: Travis P. Ball/Getty Images Entertainment


—Fair use is being widely used both by documentary and fiction filmmakers who showed at the festival, in spite of lawyers bemoaning its difficulties on SXSW panels. Most of the documentaries employed fair use, some lavishly. Among the heavy users: The Internet's Own Boy, Beyond Clueless, That Guy Dick Miller and the fiction film Kumiko. This is a huge shift in a decade; in 2004, no insurer would routinely accept fair use claims, and since the 2005 publication of Documentary Filmmakers' Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use (co-authored by IDA, among other organizations), all do.

—How do you survive the heady pace of change? M. Scott Havens, president of The Atlantic, an astonishing success story in the fraught world of journalism, had one answer: Don't worry too much about your grand strategy, because everything's going to change anyway. Focus on talent and building a culture in your organization that can nourish it.

The constant barrage of pontifications at SXSW could bring out the sardonic. Sales agent John Sloss saluted the field with his remark, "Everyone we work for could be making more money doing something else." Kartemquin's Tim Horsburgh responded, "Like being a sales agent?"

Patricia Aufderheide is University Professor of Communication Studies in the School of Communication at American University, director of the Center for Media and Social Impact there, and author of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press).