From the latest issue of Realscreen: Evolution of the web doc

In the November/December issue of realscreen, we examine how non-traditional narratives, interactivity and gaming techniques are impacting the world of the web documentary.
November 29, 2010

Ask a producer about the market for web documentaries and you’re likely to be met with another question: how do you define ‘web documentary’?

Often, a web doc is defined as a film with a linear narrative that debuts on a website, but will ultimately require a TV distribution deal to recoup its production costs, or as ‘DVD extra’-type content released in tandem with a TV program. Increasingly though, the definition is evolving and including non-traditional narratives that incorporate interactive and gaming techniques.

European and North American broadcasters, mostly in the public sector, are nudging the nascent medium forward with small-to-modest investments. It’s a strategy producers hope will pay off in the long run when an expected growth in viewership starts to attract serious ad dollars online. In the meantime, producers and new media designers alike are undergoing re-education to transform web production from a service-based industry to a creatively-led platform.

An example of the latter is Le Challenge, an interactive doc produced by Paris-based Honkytonk Films for broadcaster Canal+. Billed as an ‘environmental global media adventure,’ the doc casts the viewer as a freelance journalist investigating the story behind the long legal battle between indigenous Ecuadorians and oil giant Chevron. Users can choose what questions to ask subjects, which destinations to travel to and whether or not to brush up on their facts before an interview.

Web docs like Le Challenge follow the concept of user-centric design to offer viewers multiple routes into the story, such as short video clips or a posting on a forum or social media channel such as Facebook.

‘The human mind doesn’t necessarily absorb material in a linear way,’ says Mark Atkin, director of Crossover Labs, an international educational series that brings filmmakers together with new media designers for intensive workshops. ‘It’s hard for filmmakers to get their heads around that because they’re much more used to the whole idea that if you do something beautifully creative, people will come and find it.’

One of the more prominent web docs of 2010 was Prison Valley, produced by Paris-based Upian for Franco-German pubcaster ARTE. Styled as a road trip, the film follows French journalists David Dufresne and Philippe Brault as they explore the prison industry in Canon City, Colorado, a dusty town that’s home to 36,000 people and 13 penitentiaries. The narrative unfolds through still photographs, video and audio clips, interactive maps and statistical graphs.

The film premiered online in April and picked up French broadcaster France 24-RFI’s 2010 International Web Documentary Award in September. It is the first web doc commissioned by ARTE. The budget was €240,000, including €90,000 in financing from the channel.

Around 42,000 viewers registered or logged in via Facebook and Twitter to watch three hours of content, including the primary narrative and bonus material. Viewers could also chat in a forum and email some of the characters. Of its users, 20% stopped watching after the first episode and 25% made it to the very end. The film has upwards of 400,000 views and the average user time spent on the site is 10 minutes. When realscreen logged on in September, only one other user was online.

While the numbers may be on the small side, ARTE’s strategy is to invest in the genre to help hone and define it so that when demand spikes, its producers will be ready. ‘We didn’t have any template for what we should do, so we said, ‘Let’s do what can be done,” says Joël Ronez, the head of ARTE France’s web department. ‘We know it’ll be a long way. We won’t find a million users tomorrow.’

In France, ARTE is widely considered to be one of the biggest players in interactive film production. Ronez’s department has a budget of €2 million and of that money, the net invests €400,000 into four-to-five web-based series – both factual and drama – per year. ‘If we don’t do this now to address the population with Internet content and mobile,’ he says, ‘we’ll be like dinosaurs with our broadcast programs.’

Channel 4 and BBC in the United Kingdom have started creating web-only programs and games based on TV shows, such as Channel 4′s Embarrassing Bodies. The situation is similar in the United States, where commercial and public broadcasters often invest in web content – sometimes branded – related to broadcast.

The PBS original web series The Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers is one such example. The idea for the show came about when filmmaker Josh Seftel, a regular contributor to PBS’ news magazine NOVA scienceNOW, realized he knew way too much about celebrities and not enough about the people working to cure cancer.

The show takes a light-hearted look at the extracurricular activities of some of the United States’ brightest minds and is designed to run online during the 42 weeks of the year the TV series is not on the air. Each new episode appears every two weeks and viewers have a chance to pose questions to the featured scientist.

‘In some ways audiences are even more fickle when it comes to the Web than they are when it comes to television,’ says Seftel, the show’s EP. ‘There’s a new flavor every day and there are a lot more channels on the Internet than there are on TV so in that sense, it’s really competitive. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s a ton of great stuff out there. In a way it mirrors TV: the amount of quality content out there is pretty finite.’

In Canada, the Telefilm fund and private telecom companies have financed web projects but usually when a TV broadcast is attached, so the genre has been slow to develop. However, producers at The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) hope that will change thanks to the Canada Media Fund’s experimental stream for non-linear interactive content and software applications. Recently, the Fund awarded CDN$12.9 million to 27 projects for production funding, but almost half of the recipients were game-related projects. Three were interactive web series, each from a French-Canadian producer.

Online production represents 20% of the NFB’s production budget, resulting in around 30 English-language projects and a dozen French ones. The public film producer has been forward thinking in the space, as seen in projects such as its iPhone and iPad apps. It also recently announced a coproduction deal to produce two web docs with ARTE.

‘We always try to think of our projects from the audience perspective – in the first person perspective,’ says Hugues Sweeney, a developer for the NFB’s digital program and projects. ‘With a simple click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger, interactivity can change how audiences come to understand a story, a point of view or an issue. We think that interactivity can even change how people come to understand themselves.’

Crossover Labs’ Atkin regularly meets producers who are working on transmedia documentary projects and want his input. ‘By and large, mostly, they are sort of rather ill thought out,’ he says. ‘Usually it’s not much more than a film with a website or some sort of idea about using social networks that hasn’t been thought through.’

More than 300 people have attended Crossover workshops in the UK, Canada, Australia, Scandinavia and Italy over the past five years. The instructors school filmmakers and new media designers in each other’s workflow and lingo. Heather Croall, director of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, calls it a ‘language school’ that forces participants out of their comfort zones by laying together production timelines for TV, web and mobile.

‘Their knowledge and background is brilliant,’ she says. But she emphasizes the importance of ‘thinking of a new way of working, a new production model, a new delivery model and also a how-to-engage-our-audience model.’

One project to emerge from the lab – albeit indirectly – is the acclaimed Britain From Above, a cross-property documentary series commissioned by the BBC from London indie Lion TV in 2008. The three films and accompanying web experience successfully melded aerial photography and CGI to chart the history of British population patterns from a bird’s eye view. Atkin says the idea was hatched by a producer and a digital agency creative who met during a workshop.

‘We’re just at the ‘man with the movie camera’ moment,’ says Croall of the industry’s integration of online interactivity and the documentary form. ‘We’re at the moment when the Lumière Brothers were shooting factory workers running out of the factory. We haven’t cracked it yet.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.