Hot Docs ’13: Ondi Timoner talks art and entrepreneurship

During a keynote address at the Toronto festival's industry conference, the Dig! and We Live In Public director (pictured) urged fellow documentarians to adopt a tech entrepreneur's mindset.
April 29, 2013

Documentarians must completely re-think their roles as filmmakers, Dig! and We Live In Public director Ondi Timoner (pictured) argued during a keynote presentation at this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.

“We need to think differently about making films before we start shooting and we should be distributing as we go,” the two-time Sundance-winner told a packed house on Monday morning (April 29). “You can reach one billion people but we need to find our audiences where they live, which is on their devices.”

Drawing on lessons learned throughout her 20-year career, Timoner outlined the thinking that led her to start her documentary web talk show Bring Your Own Doc (B.Y.O.D.) and her latest endeavor A Total Disruption, a web portal that will chronicle innovators in the converging worlds of technology and entertainment.

The site will feature interviews and profiles of tech innovators and entrepreneurs such as BitTorrent’s Bram Cohen and Reddit’s Steve Huffman, as well as entrepreneurial-minded artists such as musician Amanda Palmer, who will star in one of the website’s upcoming doc-series.

So far, Timoner has shot 300 hours of footage, interviewed 100 subjects and edited 50 episodes for seven different web series. She is now attempting to crowdfund US$96,000 via Kickstarter to finance the completion of episodes in-progress, create a searchable database of her interviews, develop online courses, and begin production on Chief Executive Artist, the series starring Palmer.

Backers can receive a subscription to the database, original artwork by Shepard Fairey, Skype consultations with Timoner and tech entrepreneurs and – for $10,000 – a full-episode about their start-up.

Timoner told the crowd that the idea for the project grew out of her foray into digital self-distribution, after failing to secure a distributor in the wake of the 2008 market crash for Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner We Live in Public, about the life of prophetic dot-com millionaire Josh Harris.

After presenting statistics showing paltry box office returns for the majority of documentaries and growing viewership among users of services such as BitTorrent, she told Hot Docs delegates that documentarians must shift their focus away from theatrical and adopt the responsive mindset of a tech entrepreneur when it comes to financing, marketing and distribution.

“Documentaries are not really translating into theatrical success anymore,” she explained, adding that her last film, the climate change polemic Cool It, only grossed $62,000 even though its distributor pumped $2 million into marketing. “It is not a winning proposition.”

Although she has not abandoned long-form feature storytelling, she is editing and releasing short-form content more nimbly online in order to grow her audience and gauge its response. If she does an interview for a project, she considers its potential uses for multiple audiences simultaneously: as a database, a digital book, a docu-series, a web-series, online courses and perhaps, eventually, a feature doc.

“I will ultimately make several feature documentaries out of what I’m doing,” she said, “but I can share it as I go.”

Timoner spoke energetically about an array of self-distribution platforms and offered advice on the pros and cons for various crowdfunding platforms, such as Indiegogo, Kickstarter and Seed + Spark. Initially resistant to the idea of asking her fans for “hand-outs,” she eventually realized that crowdfunding projects such as her current Kickstarter campaign are a chance to identify and engage with her fans over the long term, even after a funding goal is reached.

“I want to maintain a relationship with these people forever,” she said.

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