CPH:DOX ’17: Cook and Schnack discuss short form serial docs

COPENHAGEN — With the internet shifting how consumers watch, access and consume films and information, there has been growing interest in serialized short-form documentaries for digital platforms. It’s a new space ...
March 23, 2017

COPENHAGEN — With the internet shifting how consumers watch, access and consume films and information, there has been growing interest in serialized short-form documentaries for digital platforms.

It’s a new space that Field of Vision, a visual journalism film company based in New York, wants to capitalize on.

“A lot of filmmakers invest in a story for years, but they also have stories they want to tell quickly. We wanted to utilize that moment and that way of thinking to bring cinematic and artistic works to the internet,” said Charlotte Cook (pictured, right), in a joint interview with AJ Schnack (left) of Field Vision, for realscreen.

Cook and Schnack are the co-creators, along with Laura Poitras, of FoV, a project of multi-platform media company First Look Media that launched in 2015. FoV commissions and creates original short-form nonfiction films about unfolding global stories.

Schnack and Cook were at the Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival on March 22. There, they discussed the new space for serialized shorts, such as the six-part series The Journey — featuring Syrian refugees traveling through Europe, that FoV distributed with The New Yorker.

Filmmaker Matthew Cassel reached out to the F0V team, telling them in a cold submission that he had been following a Syrian family on their trek to the Netherlands. Schnack said the story felt different than what had been told about the migrant crisis, so the team proposed Cassel develop his material into a series.

The first episodic series FoV did was on the Greek financial crisis, with the four-part #ThisIsACoup, by director Theopi Skarlatos.  In this case, the director came to the company saying that he usually works with television, but wanted to get the series out before the Spanish election that faced similar issues to that in Greece.

FoV worked with BritDoc to gain traction with audiences. During this time, journalist Paul Mason, who produced the series, was also covering the crisis and writing articles in different languages and countries that helped contextualize the story for the global audience.

While there has been a growing interest in episodic short stories, Schnack noted, as often is the case with doc filmmakers, raising the money for a project can be a challenge. However, he said with feature docs, investors and grant-providers often see a clearer path on their return of money. This type of relationship has yet to be established in the short-form space.

Schnack said this is the crux of the problem for short-form directors: How do I raise the money?

“We think it’s important that filmmakers are compensated for their time and work and what the film costs. That is something we are big advocates for in our space because that’s not always the case,” he said.

The world of short-form serialized docs is drawing in both established and new directors, Cook said. At FoV, they are looking for new talent, are also approaching industry veterans they believe would be the right match for a project. She said filmmakers are looking for the opportunity to try their hand in this creative space.

“Often when you are making a feature, there will be a story that won’t fit or something happens that you wish you could talk about now or show people now, so people are utilizing this new space,” said Cook.

Unlike feature docs, where moments and beats have to be condensed, she said the episodic form allows for scenes to play out, which can be more creatively freeing than long form for directors.

However, Cook noted, projects shouldn’t be serialized for the sake of being serialized. The story has to lend itself to that form that requires the ability to have the necessary turns to keep audiences coming back to see how the drama unfolds.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.