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Digital Hollywood Doc Panels: Doing the DIY Dance

By Kathy McDonald

Sponsored by the IDA, the "Digital Documentarian: DIY All the Way" panel at the Digital Hollywood conference in Santa Monica on May 3 considered several timely subjects: how the availability of digital cameras has impacted production; the use of the Internet in promotion and distribution; and how subjects, even as serious as mountaintop removal coal mining, can be made accessible to audiences via online initiatives like Second Life. 

Although it was not possible to cover all aspects of the impact of digital technology on documentary filmmaking, after clips from each filmmaker, the forum raised some ideas and participants posed some questions. Adam Chapnick, IDA Board Vice President and CEO of Distribber, moderated the panel, which included the following filmmakers: Christoph Baaden (Hood to Coast, a sports film that covers the world's largest relay running race); Keven McAlester (The Dungeon Masters;   You're Gonna Miss Me); Sally Rubin, who has created a companion interactive game in Second Life to her film Deep Down that further exposes the realities of mountaintop removal; Jason Spingarn-Koff, whose documentary Life 2.0, about people immersed in Second Life virtual reality, was shot partly in the virtual world, and partly in real life; Adam Del Deo (Every Little Step); Scott Hamilton Kennedy (The Garden), now in post-production on Fame High; and Christopher Quinn (God Grew Tired of Us), who is the process of opening a documentary theater in Los Angeles.

For Christophe Baaden, the key to getting Hood to Coast made was understanding the core audience for the film. "Before we started filming, we talked to distributors, specifically about the sports hook," Baaden said. "We were able to raise money because of the large built-in audience." He credits other doc filmmakers for sharing information on DVD, rental and theatrical numbers for other sports films to show the market potential of Hood to Coast to investors.

Adam Del Deo also stressed the importance of using whatever camera is available (you can't always afford HD) to capture those vérité moments that are so important. "Don't be paranoid about technology," he stressed. "Just capture it; the look can be fixed at end of process."

Jason Spingarn-Koff espoused the contrarian's viewpoint: While digital cameras provide a low bar to entry, he has no illusions that digital filmmaking is cheap; he couldn't make money while making his film, which took three years to make.

Sally Rubin explained how pitching and then creating a Second Life component allowed her team to make their film. "It's not enough to just have a good idea and a compelling story," she contended. "We wanted to make a film that would get made and have people see it; we came up with a gimmick and a way to connect with the story in Kentucky."  Funder ITVS loved the idea and provided funding; the filmmakers then leveraged for additional funding and an upcoming PBS national broadcast. "We had to think well beyond cinema vérité: how to get the story out there and impact people," Rubin noted. 

Keven McAlester agreed that while it is much easier these days to make a film because of digital technology, the bar has been raised. "In terms of technology, it's forced filmmakers to consider creativity and imagination when making films," he pointed out. Scott Kennedy countered that his film The Garden was almost completely a vérité film (it did have some Adobe After Effects). "As filmmakers, you don't want style to outweigh substance," he cautioned. "Story has to work with technology."

Because of his own experience with theatrical distribution and finding that docs are low on the totem pole in the theatrical world, Christopher Quinn is working on launching a documentary theater in Los Angeles. He is currently investigating theaters and expects to open within the year. "It's a reaction to selling a film: distributors are running the game," he maintained. "It's now about packaging the deal: roll films out quickly to take advantage of press, and the theatrical window is often by-passed." He also wants to have a place for the doc community that is not just online. But the panelists were quick to mention websites that did support doc filmmakers including, and


IDA Board Vice President Adam Chapnick (right) moderates "The Digital Documentarian--DIY All the Way" panhel at Digital Hollywood on May 3. 


The second documentary-specific panel of the day, "Crowd Funding, Alternative Distribution, Community Building and Social Marketing," was moderated ably by David Straus, CEO of Withoutabox. Participating and giving a glimpse of how documentary filmmakers can utilize Internet tools to build awareness, raise funds and promote and distribute their films were: Danae Ringelmann, co-founder, IndieGoGo, an online funding platform for indie filmmakers; David Gale, senior vice president for new media at MTV, an in-house incubator for new programming ideas; Sara Pollack, entertainment marketing manager for YouTube's Screening Room; Christian Gaines, director of festivals at Withoutabox; and Laura Beatty, vice president of marketing and distribution at Brave New Films.
Straus asked audience members if they were filmmakers or distributors. To those who answered as filmmakers, he admonished, "The first step in getting your film out is to identify yourself as a distributor." Filmmakers already have many tools to get their documentaries out. Here's a sampling of advice from the panelists on how to start that process:

Laura Beatty: "Look at a Facebook fan equally as an e-mail address. Message what you're doing as filmmakers to fans. Get a following based on what you're doing. Once you start the process of filmmaking, start messaging."

Sara Pollack:  "Although YouTube is used most commonly as a platform for short films, we are now experimenting with feature films in an ad-supported model. With VOD [launched in January 2010] and a heavily curated sponsorship section, there are now a variety of ways to monetize on YouTube. All films and filmmakers should be on Facebook, then immediately share when you post to YouTube. Think of uploading a film, like a film's [traditional theatrical] opening weekend."

Danae Ringelmann: "Marketing is actually free now on the Internet. Use Facebook, Twitter  and YouTube to get out into world; it is imperative as filmmakers to put on your marketer hat. Use the Internet to engage audiences earlier; start building a following early [by posting clips]. You don't have to give your entire film away, but production is the new promotion and a way to build buzz." 

David Gale: "Whether you're big media or just starting, you still have to get an audience interested in what you're doing. You have to look at your film as an immersive experience; consider new platforms like the one-million-selling iPad. [Gale used MTV's Five Dollar Cover on the Memphis music scene as an example.] As filmmakers, you have to start to think outside of linear space--how to explore content, what information you want to convey."

Christian Gaines:  "I've see film festivals change a lot: they are now experimenting with new forms of distribution as it relates to their brand. Formerly, there was a big focus on being first and only, with premieres. Now, with the advent of non-linear, that's not as important to film festivals these days. With VOD, iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, and pay as you go, compared to renting and buying DVDs, this is all a new world for documentaries and specialty films, and in its early stages. My advice: Learn everything about this space, which will give you a competitive edge."

Danae Ringelmann: "Get your [distribution] windows ready to go at same time; your ability to make money is in the robustness of your Fans, Friends and Followers. Audience-building and marketing is now the filmmakers' job. And you must outreach to organizations, bloggers, influencers, all those people who are going to get you to your fan base."

Christian Gaines: "Consider as a marketing engine and information site. Filmmakers need to take a film's title page seriously and add photos and videos."

And a post-session comment from filmmaker Lyn Goldfarb: "The session was really valuable in making filmmakers aware of the change in distribution and marketing around us and what we can do. There's a sea change in awareness that filmmakers have to come to grips with: the marriage of us as content producers and technology, all beyond broadcast and theatrical."


Kathy A. McDonald is a writer based in Los Angeles.