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docSHIFT Summit 2011 recap

Article is a cross-post with Village Gamer, a news source for Canadian interactive digital media content.

This past weekend the Documentary Organization of Canada – Toronto Chapter held docSHIFT Summit 2011, a conference with the purpose of educating and supporting documentary filmmakers who are looking to leverage their storytelling abilities and position themselves as the go-to people in this new and evolving marketplace.

While the target audience for the event was documentary filmmakers, I thought it would not be a bad thing as an interactive producer to also attend, to hear about the trends in interactive production for documentary and to listen to the concerns these filmmakers have while manoeuvring the transition to interactive storytelling.

The two day conference covered the full spectrum of interactive documentaries featuring case studies, academic insights, and lessons learned from industry leaders.  Topics ranged from user experiences (web, mobile apps, and gaming), business cases, branded entertainment, opportunities in elearning, opportunities for integrating augmented reality and games into documentary storytelling, legal considerations, and how to pitch to investors and broadcasters.

While impossible to write an article on every discussion and cover every wedge of information, this article is intended to summarize key take-aways from the event.  The conference organizers will be posting videos of many of the sessions in the coming weeks, but in the meantime you can review my curation of tweets from the event for additional insights.

Innovation in Documentary Filmmaking

The event started off with a keynote from Ryerson University’s Dr. Charles Davis who gave an overview of innovation in the documentary landscape.  Opportunities for innovation include the development of new business models for the content, to look at the use of multiple platforms to tell stories (ie – film, online, mobile, book, educational materials), and a need to create a “brand” for themselves as companies and for the Canadian interactive documentary industry as a whole (which was further highlighted later in the event about the international recognition of the NFB’s efforts in the interactive factual storytelling space).

Dr. Davis noted the transition into interactive can be difficult for filmmakers to adapt to, because successful interactive productions are a triad hybrid of business, creative, and technical considerations.  He also highlighted (which is relevant for most convergent products), that the trend in interactive story experiences is moving away from “huge, expansive storyworlds” and into smaller experiential chunks.

Opportunity for Storytellers

While interactive experiences tend to be inherently non-linear, the backbone is still based on a linear story – whether it outlines the user experience itself, or as the guiding backbone of the interactive concept.

An example of this “backbone” is The Goggle’s  Pine Point Interactive done in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada.  The experience is framed in a linear way – beginning, middle, and end to the narrative – but offering the user a means of customizing the experience.  While the story is framed with pages that the user selects to advance the story, within each page users can shuffle photos, watch additional video content, etc.

Secret Location’s James Milward emphasized the importance of considering your user’s experience, noting that while an interactive experience is designed in a non-linear fashion, “a user’s journey is linear”.  He also emphasized the importance of “deciding in advance what success looks like”.  This decision and early consideration of a strategic plan helps to determine the delivery model and type of content.

Matt Locke, the Director of www.storythings.com added to the message: the biggest challenge of getting attention (in the digital space) is answering why people will spend time with your project – it is up to the creators to answer that.  “No matter how wonderful/beautiful your doc is, if the experience and usability isn’t great, you lose that tenuous connection to the user.”

Filmmaker Lalitha Krishna from In Sync Video demonstrated how by researching her audience early, she was able to adapt her digital media component for Semisweet to her audience wants before developing Choco-locate (created with the support of TVOntario, the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund, and the OMDC Interactive Digital Media Fund).

Krishna’s documentary Semisweet looks into the lives of four individuals who have been intrinsically transformed by chocolate. Examining the history and social impact of the commodity of chocolate, she had assumed the best interactive component would be a further exploration into these themes.  However, upon focus-group testing with chocolate lovers, their number one request was a way to easily find chocolate.  From this feedback, Krishna changed her interactive concept into a mobile app to help locate local quality chocolateers and also set up a blog that highlights these retailers.

By researching her audience and setting a strategy in the early stages, Krishna was able to start production on all three platforms (documentary, iPhone app, website) with a clear understanding of what each component was adding to the IP, and could focus her team`s production efforts appropriately.

How to Know What Platform to Use?

The recurring question for the audience was “how do I know what to do?”.  With the variety of options both for content (website, social media/community building, interactive functionality, additional videos, games, augmented reality), and platforms/technology (online, iOS mobile, Android mobile, Facebook, Google+, QR codes) how does a filmmaker know what’s best?

Ryerson University’s Richard Lachman’s recommendation: “Play with existing content and determine what you like – If you don’t know anything about digital, how do you know you need a game for your project?”  Only by playing with content can you discover what works, what doesn’t, what suites your storytelling style, and what audiences will want to interact with.

Milward emphasized that in interactive, “eyeballs are important”.  Lachman additionally emphasized that the interactive space has its own set of metrics different from film: while someone watching only 8 minutes of a feature film is considered a failure, in interactive someone sticking for 8 minutes is considered a success.

Lachman recommendeed that filmmakers not fall into the GMOOT (get me one of those) traps when developing an interactive project – focus on what your story needs.  The Goggle’s Michael Simons agreed, that for Pine Point they “pushed back on the robots” and focused only on what they needed to tell their story.

What are the Broadcasters Looking for in a Digital Media Component?

The conference organizers were able to collect nearly all of the interactive representatives of the Canadian broadcasters who commission documentary content (CBC, TVOntario, Shaw Media, Corus Entertainment, Bell Media, and Glassbox).  While each broadcaster has its own content mandate and focus that matches their broadcast audiences, in terms of interactive experiences, they all had the same advice to the attendees.

Because documentary productions tend to pull in smaller audiences, there are fewer financial resources available for interactive content for this genre.  Additionally, many of the interactive departments at the broadcasters are given a single budget which is to both operate their department and for licensing interactive material.  Producers who are able to sell the broadcaster’s interactive teams on the vitality of the interactive experience and demonstrate how that experience can lead to more eyeballs to the television component, the broadcasters will find means to support the project.

While the broadcasters are not always in a position to contribute significant interactive license fees or Canada Media Fund envelope allocations, they will find other means of support, such as in-kind services and guidance in applying to the Bell Fund’s Low Budget Production Program.

All of them emphasized the importance of story in the pitch.  CBC’s Tessa Sproule observed best formulation for transmedia treatments is one that is organic to the story and its themes.  ShawMedia’s Chris Harris recommended Producers focus their pitch on the level of engagement with the digital media property over pitching on the “thing”.  Corus Entertainment’s Caitlin O’Donovan reminded the audience that the digital media components, while needing to be compelling on their own, still needs to help convert into broadcast ratings.  Bell Media’s Ryan O’Brien added it is “meaningful experiences” that help expand the audience.

Christine McGlade discussed TVOntario’s two-tier approach to digital media material to support documentary films.  Their DocStudio platform is a simple online tool that curates their documentary promotional content, “DVD-extension type materials”.  Separate from this initiative, TVO is looking for “interesting extentions” to the broadcast property as an eligible digital media component.

Harris commented that the television series is usually what is greenlit first, but the interactive team is getting involved earlier.  When to pitch interactive for a Shaw Media property depends on when the Producer is ready – but be sure to not pitch for the “thing”, focus on the story and the level of engagement.

Simon Foster detailed Glassbox’s heavy-online focus, that their audience is hungry for online content, and are making efforts in building their digital media content library.

What do the Funds Really Want?

Andra Sheffer, Executive Director, Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund and Francesca Accinelli, Director, Canada Media Fund Program Administration, English Market from Telefilm Canada each took some time to demystify their Funds for the participants.

Sheffer explained that the Bell Fund wants to know and understand what makes the project engaging.  Detailing the user engagement in your application is a significant key to a successful funding proposal.  She also highlighted their Low Budget Program as mentioned by the broadcasters – they have discovered that not every interactive component needs to be a complex experience and plenty of excellent, innovative, engaging products can be produced for less than $100,000.

Accinelli outlined very clearly what the CMF means by “rich and substantial” in the Convergent Stream guidelines – it is new content that is meaningful to the user.  Simply cutting your film/television series into smaller bites is not eligible, but new or unused content is.  In response to a question from the audience, she also explained that in the cases where the digital media component is leading the broadcast, simply releasing smaller clips of the soon-to-be-broadcast television component is also ineligible.

Examples of previously funded “rich and substantial” documentary products (in addition to Semisweet’s Choco-locate) include:

When applying to the CMF’s Experimental Stream, Accinelli cautioned the attendees on how different that program’s mandate is from the Convergent Stream, and how it attracts a different collection of applicants.  Experimental Stream applications come in from game studios, portals, content aggregators, and software tech – many are organizations who do not often access funding from other programs or tax credit sources and are designing new technology and experiences.  She also responded to concerns that the Experimental Stream is “only games” – and explained that “games” are actually wide collection of interactive experiences.  Every round of the Experimental Stream sees 180-220 applications.

Accinelli also strongly emphasized that the Canada Media Fund is in the process of reviewing all funding programs, and will be locking their guidelines for a 2 year period. Public consultations and highlights of any proposed changes are available via their discussion board: http://www.cmf-fmc.ca/discussions

About docSHIFT

docSHIFT: Real Stories to Multiple Platforms facilitates new creative partnerships and helps develop innovative interactive documentary projects. docSHIFT is organized by the Documentary Organization of Canada – Toronto Chapter, made possible with the support of the Ontario Media Development Corporation and is presented in partnership with Ryerson University, Hot Docs, CFC Media Lab and the National Film Board of Canada.

The docSHIFTSummit was made possible by the Ontario Media Development Corporate on behalf of the Ministry of Culture, with the support of HotDocs, Ryerson University, National Film Board of Canada, Canadian Film Centre Media Lab, the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund and Interactive Ontario.