Hot Docs 2012: Applying principles of ‘Big Data’ to indie docs

Finding North director Kristi Jacobsen (pictured) was one of two indie docmakers that presented results from an analytics experiment for a panel at the Hot Docs industry conference on Thursday (May 3).
May 4, 2012

With much of the debate around the rise of ‘Big Data’ focused on big business, organizers of Hot Docs’ industry conference hatched an experiment to see what would happen if they applied an analytic-driven approach to the marketing of social issue documentaries.

For the panel ‘Measuring and Leveraging the Digital Space,’ the makers of two documentaries screening at the festival – Finding North and Herman’s House – were asked to use a new aggregation tool and meaningfully mine data to turn the passive, cinema-going experience into an actionable social media outreach plan and report back on the progress during Thursday’s panel.

Those in attendance heard how integrating analytics early in the production process might help generate awareness by the time a movie hits cinemas. Moderated by Brian Newman, founder of the new media production company subgenre, the panelists included Finding North director Kristi Jacobsen (pictured above); Jonny Bunning, the social media manager for Herman’s House; Microsoft Canada strategist Bill Mohri; and Jennifer Gilomen and Marc Vogl, two execs with BAVC, supporter of the software – an online metric tool that aggregates data from Google Analytics, Twitter, Facebook and other sites into a customized dashboard.

Both films have just started working the festival circuit and their makers have had only a few weeks to use – which is still in beta – prior to the panel, so Jacobsen and Bunning’s preliminary insights were more assessments of the software’s potential.

Jacobsen, who is working with Participant Media on an awareness campaign around issues of hunger and food security tied to the release of Finding North (which will likely change titles), mainly used the software to gauge online reaction on Facebook and Twitter, which spiked around festival screenings of the film. She plans to use it to identify who is talking about the issues and drive them to sign petitions hosted on the film’s NGO partner sites.

“The more we played around with it, the more excited we got about what we’ll do when we’re getting ready for the campaign launch,” she said, noting that because the software is public-facing, film fans can get a sense of community by visiting it.

“People like to know what role they’re playing,” she added.  “To see how you’re part of a bigger movement could be really valuable.”

The dashboard that Bunning – who works for a PR firm – designed for Herman’s House was much more robust looking, with a trailer, poster and Soundcloud clip embedded among social media tracking stats. The film is about the relationship between a visual artist and New Orleans prison inmate Herman Wallace, who has served 40 years in solitary confinement – so its eventual marketing will take the form of a criminal justice reform campaign.

So far, the film has generated a lot of chatter in the United Kingdom – where it has yet to screen – thanks to a story in the Guardian newspaper about solitary confinement in the United States. “It was a case of tracking who was talking about the article, who was commenting and who was reposting it,” he said.

Bunning added that he has spent a lot of time reaching out to followers of now-dormant accounts previously started to promote Wallace’s cause and encouraging them to follow the film’s official Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Both have spent time using metrics to build awareness among social media users already switched on to each film’s respective issue, but whether or not they can translate that awareness into action will be put to the test once the films are released to the public.

The panelists cautioned that such platforms can only target viewers that are active online, and thus remains a complement to a documentary’s best motivator: its emotional persuasiveness, or as Newman put it, “that moment when someone comes up to after the screening and says ‘that movie changed my life.’”

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