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Documentary Film and New Media

June 14, 2009

(Kathryn Pyle is producing a documentary film about the post-conflict period in El Salvador. In her last post, she wrote about the "green trees" movement in Washington, D.C. )

Film_strip New media wasn't the only topic on the agenda at the "Fundraising and Financing for Documentaries" event this weekend at Hunter College in New York City. But it was certainly the elephant in the room -- in this case, an auditorium filled to overflowing with aspiring documentary filmmakers seeking advice and an opportunity to pitch their projects to a star roster of funders and broadcasters.

Presented by Women Make Movies and New York Women in Film & Television, the program featured representatives from HBO, the Sundance Channel, A&E, the public TV series POV and Independent Lens, as well as funders such as Cinereach, Chicken & Egg, the National Black Programming Consortium, and Independent Television Service (ITVS). Those in attendance were rewarded with lots of advice on presenting proposals to funders (summary: "read the guidelines") and making award-winning films. Character development, artful storytelling, stunning visuals, and compelling social issues are still what broadcasters and audiences want, and filmmakers were encouraged to share their passion when approaching distributors; passion can tilt the balance and convince a distributor to pick up a film, especially if it happens to be a film by a first-time director -- the astonishing Trouble the Waters being an example.

Later in the day, a panel of independent doc-makers described their use of Twitter, MySpace, and other social networks for fundraising. The examples ranged from simple, self-managed email solicitations sent to friends and acquaintances to the use of commercial online fundraising sites that post worthwhile projects and a time-limited fundraising goal for each project -- sort of a cross between a Jerry Lewis telethon and eBay. The panelists also focused on the ways they use their own Web sites, blogs, and Facebook pages to build an audience and create "buzz" for their films through the posting of actual clips, regular updates on the film's progress, and links to partner organizations.

Of course, new media figured in every discussion. Without abandoning standards, the funders and broadcasters urged members of the audience to experiment with all types of new media and technology -- for making, marketing, and getting their films distributed. Many also mentioned ongoing efforts within their own organizations to adapt, adopt, and sift through the new media noise to identify what might be useful over the long term. PBS's MediaShift, for example, offers thoughtful news and analysis of "the digital media revolution," and PBS staff at the event reported on new initiatives in the pipeline designed to build the capacity of PBS partners and better align the broadcaster's internal policies with the new media options available for film distribution.

The event's organizers also highlighted Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media's new Media Database, which aims to marry the interests of philanthropists and electronic media projects in need of support. I'll be attending a roll-out of the database at the SILVERDOCS conference next week in Silver Spring, Maryland. Look for a followup post from there.

-- Kathryn Pyle

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