A West Coast Perspective With Global Focus: Nani Walker Discusses L.A. Times Short Docs
By Sue Ding
Launched just under two years ago, L.A. Times Short Docs has quickly established itself as a presence in the industry landscape. Now in its second season, Short Docs is an evolving platform for short-form nonfiction “with a West Coast perspective.” Films selected for the strand stream online on the Los Angeles Times website in conjunction with festival screenings and special events. Highlights from 2023 include Sterling Hampton’s Merman, which debuted at Tribeca, and Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers’s The Last Repair Shop, which premiered at Telluride.
Nani Sahra Walker, senior commissioning producer for the strand, has worked across video journalism, immersive media, and both documentary and narrative filmmaking. She joined the L.A. Times newsroom almost five years ago as a video journalist. In that role, she wrote and directed the short documentary Alice Waters: How to Start a Food Revolution (2021), and directed and produced the Game Changers (2020) series about groundbreaking women in sports. Now, she leads L.A. Times Short Docs with an expanding team and purview.
As a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who loves both short documentaries and films exploring this complex and surprising city, I have followed Short Docs’ entry into the field with interest. It was a pleasure to speak with Walker about how the platform has grown since its launch, what goals she has for its future, and her thoughts on the overall landscape for shorts in a challenging year for the industry. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: When did you first come on board L.A. Times Short Docs?
NANI WALKER: When I first interviewed at the Times, there were two areas that I really wanted to explore. One was immersive and emerging tech in the news environment, and the other was short docs. I had mentioned that at my first interview. Fast-forward about three years, and I think the leadership was interested in exploring what a platform like Short Docs could be for the newsroom. And so we did a pilot film in October of 2021 with The Beauty President. That was Whitney Skauge’s film, made by Breakwater Studios. It was a one-off, and quite a bit of it was handled by our L.A. Times Studios team, including Leslie Lindsey, who ended up becoming my partner in Short Docs. The first year it was really just the two of us, working in tandem with a lot of departments across the newsroom—business, sales, editorial, marketing—to try to gain traction for the new platform.
D: What was the initial vision for Short Docs, and has that evolved since you started?
NW: Our official launch for Short Docs was in February of last year, and that’s when we came out with five new films, ranging from student films to films that we picked up at Sundance. And then every month thereafter, we published a film, and we had five films at the end of the year that were FYC-eligible. So it was a really strong start.
And then this year, the team has expanded. We’re much larger now, and I feel like there’s a lot of interest in the newsroom to just keep this going, keep it sustainable. We actually now fall under the Opinion section at the L.A. Times, so it’s a bigger audience and greater visibility for us.
We also started a partnership with Canon this year. Through that partnership, Canon extends the use of its professional cinematic cameras and lenses, product support, and educational training to participating L.A. Times Short Docs filmmakers to utilize in producing their next films.
D: I’m curious how and if Short Docs works with the rest of the newsroom—is it pretty separate, or could you see a situation in which there’s fact-checking or research support?
NW: We haven’t done that yet, since we work with short docs that have already been completed. But certainly, I often share films with editors from various departments if there’s a question, or for fact-checking. There have been films in the past that we haven’t picked up because our editors felt like maybe their perspectives were skewed.
D: Can you break down how things are currently structured? How many films are you taking on, how often do they come out, that sort of thing?
NW: Right now, there’s no hard structure. We tend to do one film every month or two. It isn’t quite as structured as last year, when it was first of the month, every month. This year, we’ll have a little under 10 films. We’re still trying to figure out the cadence and what makes sense. This year the focus is really on giving equal attention to every film around marketing and social and a homepage takeover. We often take over the entire digital page online, and that’s the kind of thing that major films will buy from the L.A. Times. So I think giving that same treatment to our short docs is a great incentive for filmmakers.
D: How would you describe the L.A. Times Short Docs programming vision? What differentiates the films that you select from a New York Times Op-Doc or a Netflix short?
NW: We are really focused on the West Coast perspective, so I think that’s primary for us—to be a hub for West Coast filmmakers. There’s a huge filmmaking community, both here in L.A. and in the Bay Area, especially in the documentary space. And we want to be the place that people go, where we are building relationships with filmmakers, to really be part of their journey.
D: I’m excited about that emphasis on a West Coast perspective—as a filmmaker who moved from New York to Los Angeles, it can feel like we’re missing some of the platforms that filmmakers in other metropolitan hubs have. Can you say more about what that perspective means to you, since the films so far are quite wide-ranging?
NW: In general, we are looking for stories that resonate with L.A. Times readers and West Coast audiences. So climate or immigration or the housing crisis, things like that. It’s not to say that we don’t license other films. We’re such a global region here—I think that there can be really global themes that impact all of us.
D: Many of the journalistic platforms for short docs, including the L.A. Times, pay a few thousand dollars to license films. And of course, for most of these films, that’s a fraction of what their budget actually is. How do you think we can move towards a more sustainable model for short-form filmmaking?
NW: That’s such a good question. I think that when organizations like IDA, or other grant-making organizations, are able to partner with distributors like ourselves, we can create a sustainable model. In the sense that we may be able to partner in order to commission films, but also those films have a distribution side already built in. So you think early on about that and think of it in a much broader stroke than simply, “Okay, I’m going to make the film and see what happens.” That is the model of the larger studios, and I think if we can emulate some of that on an independent scale, then we can be really sustainable and successful.
D: That’s a great point about partnerships, I’m thinking of Hulu and IF/Then shorts.
NW: Exactly. There are other relationships like that. A big question for us moving forward is, what partnership makes sense for us? We’re still very early on in the process of building Short Docs, and I’m excited about developing the platform and keeping it sustainable. Sustainability and how we can do that is one of the biggest questions for us as not just documentary filmmakers, but also as a newsroom.
Sue Ding is a filmmaker and visual artist based in Los Angeles. Her work can be found on platforms including PBS, Netflix, and the New York Times. She also writes and lectures widely on nonfiction filmmaking.