Docs

Realscreen’s Trailblazers 2014: Jason Spingarn-Koff

As we continue our look at realscreen's Trailblazers for 2014, the New York Times Op-Docs editor discusses the success of the short doc strand and a potential future in features.
February 18, 2015

Our look at realscreen‘s Trailblazers for 2014 continues with Jason Spingarn-Koff, editor, New York Times‘ ‘Op-Docs’.

Three years ago, filmmaker and journalist Jason Spingarn-Koff was hired by The New York Times to enhance the publication’s popular Opinion section with video. There had been some talk about filming contributors such as Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd reading their columns aloud – “the print way of looking at it,” quips Spingarn-Koff – but he instead urged independent filmmakers to make original shorts: the kinds that would spark the same discussions with video that Op-Ed did with writing.

More than 135 Op-Docs later, video is no longer just added-value at The New York Times. For many, ‘Op-Docs’ is an initiative that has opened doors for similar pursuits from publications such as The Guardian, The New Yorker and Condé Nast’s assorted titles. For Spingarn-Koff, it has provided an opportunity to work closely with heroes such as Errol Morris and Laura Poitras, and offered him the chance to spotlight lesser-known talent also deserving of attention. One such team was James Spinney and Peter Middleton, whose three-minute short Notes on Blindness was commissioned into a 12-minute film for ‘Op-Docs’. At IDFA, the team – which has enlisted the support of ARTE and BBC doc strand ‘Storyville’ – was looking for feature-doc funding. Reflecting on the trajectory of that project, Spingarn-Koff hints that, given the right film, a move into the feature space could be imminent.

For now, the editor is keen on developing more episodic series for ‘Op-Docs’ and working with The Times‘s editorial board for their video projects. In the spare moments eked out between, Spingarn-Koff travels the world promoting the brand. He says people used to be confused as to what The New York Times was doing at the IDFA Forum. Now, no one bats an eye as he takes his place at the roundtable.

What’s the challenge for you in producing the Op-Docs?
I think it’s the timeline. About a third of the projects we work with are related to longer works, so they can be adaptations from feature documentaries and in those cases the filmmakers are so consumed with the feature edit that they don’t have the mental space or the resources to make the short film. So it really depends, case by case. Some of them want to make the Op-Doc while they’re still in production on the feature because it will really help them bring attention to what they’re doing. They might still be fundraising or they might still be formulating what the feature’s going to be, so by going through the editorial process with us they can shape their bigger project.

What’s one project you’re particularly proud of?
[The interactive documentary] A Short History of the Highrise, because it was so ambitious and risky and a true collaboration between The New York Times and the National Film Board of Canada. I feel it was an example where we worked with an independent filmmaker [Katerina Cizek, a 2011 realscreen Trailblazer] who brought the best of her talents and matched her with people from our staff who brought their best work to it. Also, within The New York Times, we got to collaborate with people across different specialties and it was really fun to bring all these people together.

Does The New York Times have any plans of getting into the feature-length space, and creating your own original docs? It seems like the next logical step.
It’s something we’re definitely looking into. Notes on Blindness is one of the most distinctive things we’ve done and [the filmmakers] always planned on doing a feature and I feel we gave them a nice boost. That’s the type of thing I’m discussing with colleagues and the filmmakers: would there be value to The New York Times helping to further advance that?

Now that we’re three years into it with shorts, I think we’ve done very well and we’ve found that we can add something very distinctive to the filmmaking landscape. The feature field is much more crowded so we would need to think carefully about what we can add. But I’ve worked with now probably 100 filmmakers and we’ve done more than 135 Op-Docs so I’m in a good place to identify strong feature projects if we wanted to go that route.

What do you make of other media such as The New Yorker and Vice also getting into the film space? It’s a very different landscape from when you first started.
It’s only three years in so I feel we’re still in an experimental phase but we’ve proven something’s possible, which is nice. So we’ll see what the others do. I think that this work is extremely hard to do, and one of the reasons it’s so hard is the filmmakers [need to] take a lot of guidance. Most people are not used to doing shorts. So to work with a feature filmmaker to create a very strong, distinctive short piece is extremely hard. And I think my background as a filmmaker has helped that greatly because I can troubleshoot with the filmmakers and think through creatively what might work… I welcome the others but I think they’ll see that it’s more difficult than it appears to do this well.

  • Our Trailblazers feature first appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
  • About The Author
    Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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